The Group Theatre

Founded in 1931 by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg, the Group Theatre was an ensemble theater formed as a response to the old-fashioned theater of light entertainment that prevailed in the late 1920s. During its 10-year existence, the Group mounted some 20 productions of original contemporary plays by American playwrights. Members included Elia Kazan, Stella Adler, John Garfield, Luther Adler, Will Geer, Howard Da Silva, Franchot Tone, John Randolph, Joseph Bromberg, Michael Gordon, Paul Green, Clifford Odets, Paul Strand, Kurt Weill, and Lee J. Cobb. Though short-lived, the Group Theatre had a substantial impact on American theater, as it embraced naturalistic acting, ensemble production, and socially conscious drama.

It was originally at the Group Theatre that Lee Strasberg, basing his work on the innovative techniques of the Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavsky, developed “Method” acting (see Actors Studio). Actors in the ensemble used physical and psychological exercises to bring honest emotion to their acting. The results were more natural and more intense performances.

The philosophy of the Group was not unlike its politics; individual glory was less important than the good of the Group. Many hoped to produce plays that exposed social problems. Through Clifford Odets’s work, the Group expressed the plight and feelings of the working class. Most held political views that were called “left-wing.” During the 1950s, many members of the Group Theatre were investigated by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. While some, such as Kazan and Odets, cooperated with the committee and implicated others, most members refused to “name names” and were consequently blacklisted for years in Hollywood.

The Group Theatre doing the “thinking actor” pose/Stella Adler: A Life in Art

Late in the 1930s, persistent financial problems and disagreements among the members led to the dissolution of the Group. When several of the ensemble’s members went to Hollywood hoping to ease their financial problems, some did not return, and Strasberg and Crawford both resigned. The success of Odets’s Golden Boy (1937) was not enough to save the Group Theatre, and it folded in 1941. The Group’s influence on American theater, though, was far-reaching. Many Group members became influential acting teachers and directors. Kazan, Crawford, and Robert Lewis founded the Actors Studio, of which Strasberg served as artistic director for three decades and which has served as the training ground for three generations of America’s finest actors.

Among the Group Theatre productions were Paul Green’s The House of Connelly (1931), John Howard Lawson’s Success Story (1932) and Gentle Woman (1933), Marc Blitzstein’s Condemned (1932) and The Cradle Will Rock (1937), Albert Maltz’s The Black Pit (1933), Sidney Kingsley’s Men in White (1933), Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! and Waiting for Lefty (1935), William Saroyan’s My Heart’s in the Highlands (1939), and Native Son (1941) by Richard Wright and Paul Green.

Clurman, Harold. The Fervent Years: The Story of the Group Theatre and the Thirties. New York: Hill & Wang, 1957. Smith, Wendy. Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931–40. New York: Grove Press, 1992.
Source: Publishing, I., 2010. The Facts On File Companion to American Drama. New York: Infobase Pub.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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